Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Northern Peoples Want Their Nationalities Listed in Passports

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 10 – Despite the Kremlin’s efforts to bring the organizations  of the numerically small peoples of the Russian North under complete control and thus prevent them from slowing the unrestrained economic development of that region by its allies, the situation is not working out in quite the way Moscow clearly wants.

            At a meeting in St. Petersburg of the Consultative Council of the North-West Federal District on Indigene Issues, Grigory Ledkov, president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East, made two demands which could have far-reaching consequences (raipon.info/kak-dokazat-chto-ty-korennoj.html).

            Taking advantage of Moscow’s agreement to form a working group to monitor the constitutional laws of the numerically small peoples of the North in the North-West Federal District, something the center has already done in the Urals and Siberian FDs, Lebedev called for some form of passportization of nationality and a new law defining the rights of northern peoples relative to corporations developing the region.

            Ever since the Russian government dropped the nationality line in the passport, the numerically small peoples have had difficulties specifying who is a member of them and who is not. Those problems have only intensified because of the benefits that Moscow offers these communities and because assimilation to the Russian nation is no longer as attractive.

            (Analogous problems are familiar to anyone who has looked at the way Western countries have dealt with aboriginal peoples. When there are benefits to claiming membership, many people do even if they have no basis for it. And when ethnic groups become more sensitive to their status, they are less willing to assimilate to the dominant community.)

            According to Lebedev, it is absolutely essential that some system be developed that would establish “order” in the definition of membership in one or another of the numerically small indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of the Russian Federation.” Unless that happens, he said, it will be ever more difficult to guarantee the rights and secure the preferences of such peoples

            He suggested that there were several possibilities: There could be special inserts in Russian passports listing nationality as is the case at present “in several republics of Russia,” or there could be a common registry of the indigenous population, as the leadership of the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District has proposed.

            Whatever is done, Lebedev continued, “this problem must not be left without a resolution because the current situation creates serious obstacles on the path to the realization of the specific rights [of these communities] which are guaranteed by law concerning the conduct of traditional economic activity and traditional way of life.”

            That led Lebedev to make his second demand. Moscow has failed up to now to adopt laws which would require “economic subjects to conduct an assessment of the cultural, ecological, and social consequences” of their development plans “on the traditional way of life and traditional economic activity of the numerically small indigenous peoples.”

            In addition, he continued, there is very much lacking “an effective system” to calculate the losses such firms inflict and any mechanism “which would compensate” those among the numerically small indigenous peoples who suffer.  “These questions must be solved at the legislative level,” Lebedev said, as part of a system of legal guarantees for the northern peoples.

            As the Russian North heats up both literally and figuratively, the Northern peoples despite their small size will become more important politically. On the one hand, they sit on top of what is some of the most valuable real estate in the Russian Federation in terms of natural resources like oil and gas.

            And on the other, the Northern peoples through the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and other international bodies are increasingly in contact with and able to exploit their ties to the indigenous peoples of other Arctic powers such as Canada, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and the United States.

            That means that these Russian Federation groups are likely to get a bigger hearing than would otherwise be the case and that Moscow is going to have to do even more to bring them to heel if it does not want to suffer a public relation disaster or even something worse as Russian companies increasingly move into the North.

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